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Amherst Survival Center director receives honor for community leadership

survival Center 3As the nation grapples with issues concerning health care reform, Dr. Susan Lowery is taking the lead in a local grassroots effort through the Amherst Survival Center on North Pleasant Street to address the health care needs of the town”s homeless and uninsured population.

Last week, Lowery, as volunteer clinical director of the Free Clinic at the Amherst Survival Center, received recognition for her work when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) presented her with Community Leadership Award for “Outstanding Contribution to Local Community Health.”

Cathy O’Connor, director of DPH’s Office of Healthy Communities at the DPH’s Ounce of Prevention conference in Marlborough presented the award.  Though Lowery was unable to attend the ceremony, O’Connor praised Lowery’s “unstoppable energy and devotion,” in her work as both founder and director of the clinic.

 “I was really humbled and honored to get the award, I didn’t realize I had been nominated,” said Lowery. “What we’re doing is really fun and really exciting, its nice that people are willing to recognize that.”

The clinic, which is run entirely by volunteers, consists of an office within the Survival Center, where Lowery and Dr. Daniel Clapp hold hours twice a week for walk-in patients. Since its establishment in January 2008, the clinic has expanded to serve about 325 patients, many of whom are homeless and do not have access to other forms of medical care, said Cheryl Zoll, executive director of the center.

Based on their own data, 75 percent of the clients who utilize their services are under-insured or uninsured, she said.

“We thought it would be good for people who did not have insurance, or people who for mental health reasons might be distrustful of going to a hospital to receive medical care in a place where they were already comfortable,” said Zoll, of the creation of the clinic.

Lowery offered additional reasons for why patients utilize the free clinic.

“Many people have insurance, but their lives are so chaotic that they can’t make an appointment 10 days in advance and keep it,” she said, “People can’t afford co-pays or they are already here for other services like the food pantry.”

Lowery had said that overall the clinic had been very well received.

Recently, the clinic has seen a surge in interest in its services as a result of increasing unemployment and subsequent loss of employee health insurance, said Zoll. She said that some patients were coming into the clinic because they needed to have a physical exam prior to being interviewed for a new position. Without health insurance, paying for a physical exam becomes too great of an economic hardship, so uninsured job seekers are increasingly relying on the free health care services the clinic provides.

Zoll said the clinic most commonly sees cases of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, but also treat a wide range of conditions. Patient confidentiality is highly valued according to Zoll.

“We are very much no questions asked,” she said. 

Because the clinic provides free services, it must rely on a combination of funding from Cooley Dickinson Hospital, private donors and lots of volunteer work Zoll said.

“The success of the clinic is overwhelmingly due to the fact that the doctors volunteer their time,” she said.

In order to provide a wider range of services, the clinic also collaborates with Health Care for the Homeless at Mercy Hospital, the Salvation Army, Eliot Homeless Services and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in the Comprehensive Health Care Initiative. The combined services allows the clinic to offer on-site registration for state health insurance, financial support for prescriptions, weekly counseling for the mentally ill homeless, health education classes, screening, immunizations and public health resources, according to a press release.

This year, the Office of the Attorney General provided the clinic with a $50,000 grant for prescription payment assistance.

“The grant is a huge help, co-pays are going up and if you can’t pay for medicine you are really in a bind,” said Lowery, adding that the grant has allowed the clinic to greatly expand the aid it can give to the community.

This fall, the Survival Center is also working to expand its training of future community health care providers through collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth College. The honors college is offering a two semester course this fall that is training students how to become patient advocates, Zoll said.

“Medical advocates accompany people to doctor’s appointments and help them participate fully in their care,” said Lowery.

The clini’”s next big goal, according to Lowery, is finding a way to provide free dental care.

“I have people coming in with chronically abscessed teeth and I can’t give them care,” Lowery said, “It is a travesty they are being ignored. Dental care, vision care and hearing, those are basic rights, they should not be privileges.”

“We’re working toward finding a dentist or two or three to volunteer time,” Zoll said, though she acknowledged that the search had been difficult.

“This is very much our dream for the clinic,” she said.

Niina Heikkinen can be reached at nheikkin@student.umass.edu

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